GODMOTHER'S FOOTSTEPS

 

I

Judy Old roared into the farmyard like a hound of hell, pulled her bike up with a splatter outside the barn, and tooted the horn to tell anyone who hadn't already noticed that she had arrived. Her mother's head poked out of the kitchen door.

'Put the fowls off laying, you will, making all that row!'

Judy removed her helmet to reveal a smiling face, and shook her hair loose.

'I love you, too, Ma,' she said. Dismounting with style, she creaked in black leather across the yard and kissed her mother affectionately. 'I see you're baking. Good.'

'X-ray eyes is it, now?'

'Floury nose,' said Judy. 'So, what's new?'

'Two calves, bull and a heifer. First of the visitors up in the field. Are you coming in, or are you planning to stop out there and freeze us both to death?'

' I'm not freezing,' said Judy, but followed her mother into the kitchen.

Millie Jackson picked up her rolling pin and went back to her pastry, deftly lifting it onto the pie dish where steak and kidney already fragrantly nestled.

'You can put the kettle on if all you've to do is stand about like a barn door,' she suggested, crimping.

Judy picked it up, sniffing experimentally.

'What's in the oven? Smells like pasties to me.'

'And if it is, what's that to you? You're a married woman, you make your own pasties.'

'Keith loves your pasties,' said Judy, coaxing. She slid the kettle onto the Aga and returned to the kitchen table. 'You make pasties like nobody else in the world, Ma, ask anyone.'

Her mother smiled, tucking back the corners of her mouth in mock disapproval.

'Give over with the flannel, Judith Old. Fine doctor's wife you make!'

Judy grinned at that.

'It gives the patients something to chat about in the waiting room,' she suggested, and perched herself on the corner of the table. Millie gave her a poke with the end of the rolling pin.

'Shift your bottom off my clean table, if you please. If you want something useful to do while that kettle boils, you can take that letter up the field.' She pointed with the pin. 'There, on the dresser. She said she'd come down, but since you're here.'

Judy slid obediently off the table.

'If it's Satan that's supposed to find mischief for idle hands to do, I dread to think what that makes you, Ma.' She picked the letter up, looking at it with interest. 'From estate agents? Are they members of the "Let's retire to lovely Cornwall" brigade?'

'That, my girl, is for them to know and you to wonder. Now be off with you, and let me get those pasties out of the oven without you all over the place. And while you're at it, take that girl a half dozen eggs from out of the scullery.'

'What girl?' asked Judy, who had got as far as the door. Her mother laid down the rolling pin and frowned, but not, it seemed, at her daughter.

'That Mrs. Nankervis, on that letter you're bending,' she said. 'Crazy girl, near as bad as you are. They worry me, them two, though it's no business of mine. Nor yours, before you ask.'

Judy looked down at the envelope in her hands. It was addressed, she saw, to Mr. & Mrs. O.J. Nankervis, c/o Church Farm, Trelewan, Penzance, Cornwall.

'Nankervis...,' she said, thoughtfully. 'They could be relatives of yours. Then it would be your business.'

'They may well be, but that still makes them strangers. I never heard nor saw of them before.'

'Blood,' said Judy, unctuously, 'is thicker than water. They could be descendants of wicked Great Uncle Simon who ran away to get himself a life and never got forgiven.'

'That's one way of putting it, certainly. Now stop jawing, and get off with you. And don't go forgetting those eggs.'

On her way to the door, Judy paused, unable to resist one final tease.

'If you are Satan, Ma, what does that make me? Hell's angel?'

'Away with you, devil's child!' said her mother, waving a fork.

Judy laughed, and made her way back to the yard, collecting the eggs on the way. Going out through the gate again, she crossed the lane on foot and turned right, towards the entrance to the caravan park that her father, Jeff Jackson, had opened a dozen or so years earlier to augment the income from the farm. Judy, growing up next door to it, had many happy memories of summers spent playing with visitors' children, being taken on outings, attending parties and impromptu concerts, it was associated in her mind with generally having a ball. Humming, she swung in her leathers along the lane and turned under the big wrought iron archway that announced CHURCH FARM HOLIDAY PARK. There weren't many happy campers about, she noticed almost automatically, but then it wasn't even Easter yet, and still noticeably chilly, particularly at night. A couple of caravans up to the left; with two whole fields to choose from they had set up house next door to each other as if huddling up for company. One of her father's row of ten newly-installed static vans against the far hedge had teatowels on a line strung outside. And further up the field, all on its own, there was a motor caravan. Useful if her mother had told her which of these four she was heading for.

Just ahead of her, a girl walked on the rutty track that led up through the centre of the site. She walked slower than Judy because she was laden with shopping, and her back view looked young, jeans and a padded jacket, and curling, reddish-gold hair to her shoulders. Judy put on speed. Crazy girl, her mother had said, and this one was certainly a girl. And anyone who camped before Easter when it was as early as this year simply had to be crazy.

'Excuse me - 'she called out, and broke into a run.

Chel, hearing her calling, paused and looked round, lowering her bags to the ground as she waited and flexing her arms. Living in their only form of transport presented problems that she had never envisaged when she had planned it. It was difficult just to slip up to the shop with the whole house on her back, like a snail, and right at this moment, she was feeling lonely, a little frightened, and indefinably depressed, caught in a situation that she had created herself, and from which she could see no immediate way out. She wanted something good to happen more than she wanted anything.

It was just about to.

Judy caught up with her.

'Hi,' she said, breathlessly.

They stood for a moment, assessing each other while Judy got her breath back. Chel saw a small, slim girl with a cloud of dark hair, dressed in biking leathers and with a friendly grin; Judy saw a young woman with pale, freckled skin and amazing green-blue eyes with tired shadows beneath them, surely not much older than herself but looking as if she carried the cares of the world.

'Would you be Mrs. O.J. Nankervis?' Judy asked.

'That's me all right.' Oddly, that sounded almost regretful.

'There's a letter for you.' Judy held it out. 'Oh - and half a dozen eggs from Ma.' She paused. 'Ah. Yes. I tell you what, I'll carry them for you, shall I? Or even better, how about I carry one of your bags, too?'

'There's an offer I can't refuse,' said Chel, ruefully. 'My arms feel as if they reach my knees.' She held them out, stretching her fingers. 'Oof! I hate shopping!'

'Depends on the shopping,' Judy suggested. She picked up one of the bags, Chel resumed the other one, and they walked on up the sloping field together.

'I couldn't help noticing,' said Judy, without apology - she had never been backward about coming forward, as her mother frequently remarked. 'The letter's from an estate agent. Are you looking for a house down here? A holiday cottage, or something?'

'Sort of,' said Chel, and paused. Judy said,

'Me and my mouth! We're always rushing in - where even hell's angels fear to tread.' She giggled. 'Tell me to get lost, why don't you?'

But the giggle had disarmed Chel. She had once been a bit of a giggler herself, a long time ago.

'No, please don't get lost. You're the first human being apart from my husband that I've spoken to for what feels like a year.'

'Except for the people in the shop,' said Judy.

'Except for them, of course.'

A silence fell, and Judy ventured,

'They are human, you know. Sally and Jim. At the shop.'

Chel said, without quite meaning to,

'We ran away. It's left us... well, friendless, really.'

Judy stopped, and struck an attitude, there in the middle of the track.

'See me - I'm friendly!'

Chel smiled. Her face felt stiff.

'Sorry. I'm talking nonsense.'

Judy wondered if that was true. They fell into step again.

'About the house,' said Chel, feeling that she had been ungracious and wishing to make amends. 'We want to buy one down here, but we're in an awkward position. Our own hasn't sold.'

'Par for the course,' suggested Judy. 'Everything sells in time.'

'We don't have time,' said Chel. She nodded towards the motor caravan ahead of them. 'We're living in that.' She made herself laugh. 'It's a bit of a squash.'

Judy, who was a sensitive person, felt a reticence here that she didn't yet understand, but respected nonetheless. She made a joke of it, to demonstrate she had no wish to pry.

'At least you don't have six children and a dog, like some people.' She paused. ' Have you got six children and a dog?'

'No,' said Chel. 'No children.' Her throat ached.

Judy stopped again.

'It's the bike boots,' she said, apologetically, looking down at her booted feet. 'They clump in everywhere. Why don't you tell me to shut up?'

'No, it's me,' said Chel. She made herself smile. 'Take no notice, it's just that I feel as if I live in a world that's made of glass...' To her horror, she realised that she was on the verge of tears.

Judy realised that she had met with someone with whom, for some as yet unexplained reason, it was impossible to say the right thing. She looked around her for somewhere to sit. The options were limited. The last of the line of big static vans lay to the right.

'We could sit on the step of that van,' she said. 'Nobody's in it.'

Chel, a little to Judy's surprise, followed her across the grass almost as if being told what to do was a relief. They sat together on the narrow step, the shopping at their feet.

'Look,' said Judy, and with wild inaccuracy. 'I'm not a curious person - well, no more than anybody is - and you don't have to tell me anything at all. But if you want to unload onto someone, I'm here, and I promise you, it'll go no further than this step.'

Did she want to unload onto someone? Chel thought about it, and found that she was doing so with what she could only diagnose as longing, but could she really confide in someone whose name she didn't even know? So she hesitated.

Judy said,

'I'm Judy. My father owns this camping site, as you will have gathered from the eggs.'

That placed her firmly in context, Chel liked her parents and would trust them, she thought. She said,

'Cheryl. My friends call me Chel.'

'So what do I call you?'

Their eyes met. It happens, sometimes, that friendship is instantaneous, leaping like electricity between strangers.

'How about Chel?' said Chel.

'Hullo, Chel,' said Judy.

A silence fell, strained at first but gradually easing. Chel said, feeling as if she was pushing through a wall,

'If I start telling you, you'll probably find you know most of it already.'

'Then,' said Judy, calmly, 'there's no harm in telling, is there?'

'O is for Oliver,' said Chel. 'I expect you read the newspapers.'

'Sailed round the world,' said Judy.

'That's the one.'

Judy went on, slowly, searching her memory for details, for truth to tell, she hadn't followed the story closely, having had other things on her mind at the time.

'Got himself flattened in some brawl, about a year ago? Found a treasure ship? I'm sorry, I'm a bit hazy on the details. It was last summer I got married.'

Remembering her own impulsive wedding, Chel understood. After all, it probably had been quite small potatoes to most of the world even if it had filled their own horizon from east to west.

'It wasn't exactly a brawl,' she said. 'There was a girl screaming in an alley, and a gang of... well, they were bikers.' She hesitated. Judy made a grimace.

'Tell me about it! It's like football supporters, forty yobs and four hundred and forty carry the can. I blame the media, me. Go on.'

'Not nice bikers,' said Chel, thoughtfully.

'There are some not-nice accountants, or civil servants, too. Nobody seems to remember that. It's all those American biker gangs.' Her ill-disciplined sense of humour presented her with a gang of marauding accountants, but she filed the idea for a more seemly moment.

'The girl screamed rape,' said Chel. 'Oliver marched in with all guns blazing, and got beaten up. Later, she took it back. They only got a couple of years for GBH, and some of them even got off. They said Oliver started it.'

'Bit of a bugger,' said Judy, into a pause. Details were coming back now. There had been some sort of Appeal Fund, she remembered. Down here in Cornwall it had made a few minor ripples, Oliver Nankervis had sailed from, and returned to, Falmouth on his epic voyage.

'Yes... well. You know what he says - Oliver? If it had been an accident he could have borne it better... it's the thought that people did it to him, deliberately... just for fun, you could almost say. It's ruined his life.'

'He was left disabled, wasn't he?'

'Yes... although, since we got away, he's been a lot better. But where do we go from here? I don't know.'

'You've said that twice,' said Judy. 'Run away, got away. How can you get away from something like that?'

How, indeed?

'It was people,' said Chel, thinking. 'His family, particularly. He has a stepmother who is something else again. They would interfere. And his sister talked me into buying this horrible bungalow, that simply rubbed it in that nothing would ever be the same again.'

'If it was so horrible, why did you let her?' asked Judy, reasonably enough.

Difficult to explain. Chel chewed on her lip, for the bungalow hadn't been horrible to look at, merely dull, she hadn't meant that at all. She hedged.

'You know what some houses are like... they have a nasty atmosphere. I didn't realise until I actually lived in it, it was one of those.' She didn't like to say that the bungalow had nearly killed Oliver, but it had. And it had driven her out, and only a miracle had saved them. But that was in the past, and wasn't something that she could say to someone she had only just met, if she could say it to anyone at all. People at the time had thought she was being silly, refusing to go back, and they were people who had known how unhappy they had been there. Judy, who didn't know, would probably think she was barking.

But there, she misjudged Judy, who would have fully understood.

'This'll be the one that won't sell,' said Judy.

'That's the one. And until it has, we can't afford another. But we can't go on living in the van, either. Oliver was glad to get away at first - we both were - but it's too small, and too cramped, and now the first relief at escaping has worn off, it's getting on our nerves. And it's a nuisance, having to drive such a big vehicle everywhere we want to go.'

Looking back at what they had left behind them, and remembering how grateful they had been to the van to begin with, that sounded harsh. But it was true. The van was a holiday home, they - she, rather, for it had been her initiative - hadn't thought things through properly.

'Could you afford to rent?' Judy asked. Chel looked at her. Oliver had repudiated the Appeal Fund money, saying that he couldn't live on other people's charity, which had left them, not penniless, thanks to insurance and the sunken Hesperides, but needing to be careful. Renting temporarily was something they had discussed, but with Oliver still having difficulty in getting about, a lot of places were out of the question, even had there been a lot of places on offer, which, with the holiday season fast approaching, there were not. Anyway, for Oliver's sanity, it had to be somewhere in the country, and preferably near the sea. It was all very well for her sister-in-law, Susan Casson, to say that beggars couldn't afford to be choosers, but people, pavements, and houses were the last things that Oliver had ever wanted, or needed now. Living in a bland, suburban road had been yet another of the factors that had nearly brought them down.

'We've looked,' she said, now. 'It's all holiday lets, anything that might be suitable. We can't keep moving around, and anyway, they're too expensive. If we take a long-term let, it's got to be right. And not cheap, exactly, but certainly inexpensive.'

Judy patted the step on which they sat.

'What about one of these? I know they're not all let before Spring Bank, anyway, with Easter so early, and it would at least give you a breathing space.'

'But it would only be in the short term,' said Chel.

'True, but you needn't get rid of your van, you could just buy a pushbike to get around on if all you wanted was shopping. In fact, there's an old one at the farm that you could borrow.'

Once before, Chel had got so bogged down that it had taken someone outside their problems to straighten her out. The friend who had directed her attention to the van had unlocked the door of a prison - one whose bars were made of interference, of love and of caring in about equal measure. She said,

'It's certainly an idea.'

'They've got proper plumbing, not just chemical loos,' said Judy, tempting. 'And gas fires, and showers, and space to move around in. They're meant for whole families. Think about it.' She changed the subject, thinking that enough had been said for now. 'My mother was a Nankervis.'

'Was she?' Chel looked interested. 'Oliver's grandfather came from somewhere round here, perhaps you're related.'

'Really? Where from.'

'Some place called Higher Vellanzoe,' said Chel. 'We passed it once, when we were down here on holiday... he ran away too, it must run in the family.'

'Great Uncle Simon!' cried Judy. 'Nobody ever knew what happened to him! They thought he must have lied about his age and enlisted, and got killed in the Great War.' They exchanged a look and burst out laughing. Chel looked quite different when she laughed, lively and full of fun.

'His name was Simon, yes.'

'That makes us cousins,' said Judy.

'By marriage, anyway. Oliver is your blood cousin.'

'Wow, fame! This is going to put a crimp into the family album!'

Chel got to her feet.

'You'd better come and meet this cousin of yours, then. He'll be wondering where I've got to.' She glanced at the van as they left, estimating its size. It was certainly a lot bigger than the motor caravan they called home. A temporary respite... if not the full answer, it might serve a turn. Judy caught her eye.

'I could find out which one and bring up the key, if you liked. You could have a look, see what you think.'

There could be no harm in that, Chel agreed. It committed them to nothing. Commitment to anything was something that Oliver seemed to find impossible these days, and she found a heavy burden in the need to take all the decisions herself. Her one attempt to make him share in a plan for the future had been brief and unhelpful.

'We can't do anything until we've got rid of that horrible little house of yours, you know we can't.'

Thanks to him, and his stupid pride that made him reject all help. She would have liked to tell him to stop being childish, but one of the things that they found difficult these days was quarrelling, they had in the recent past done too much of it, too disastrously. When they were able to have a good fight again, Chel concluded, they could consider themselves on the high road to some kind of sensible life together, but that day hadn't yet come, and they were just marking time. He was Oliver, all right, recognisable and familiar now, not the caricature he had been only a few weeks ago, but on the other hand a long way from the tough-minded, independent adventurer of the old days. Something, however, must have shown in her face, for Oliver had given her a sweet, wilful smile, and said,

'What's the matter, are you bored?'

No, she thought now, she wasn't that. Not if he still needed the precious solitude. But surely there had to come a point at which the exclusion of all but herself from his life ceased to be necessity and became an over-indulgence. He was a natural loner, with all his normal retreats closed to him, no sun-washed Mediterranean islands, no great oceans, no wrecks under the deep sea. He could easily become a recluse if she let him, and under the circumstances, a bitter one. The day would surely come when she would have to give him a push and pray that his cruelly clipped wings had grown enough feathers for flying, and she wasn't sure if she had the courage.

Perhaps this was the day? Just a little wobble on the branch?

'When you say you ran away,' said Judy, as they walked together up the field, 'did you mean that literally?'

'Yes,' said Chel, nonchalantly, although the thought of what she had done still brought her out in a cold sweat when she thought about it. Oliver had been in hospital, recovering from the nearest thing to a breakdown she trusted he would ever have, everyone around them, both their families, had been so sure that they knew best what to do, although some with love and some with what could only be described as officiousness and at least one, she suspected, with malice - and she had taken the law into her own hands and gone behind their backs, swept him away in the motor caravan and driven by easy stages to Cornwall and the sea, and what little freedom might remain to him, telling nobody what she had done or where she was going. It had worked - up to a point - but what if it hadn't?

Best not to think about it.

But where next? They had deliberately chopped their lives in half, slid knowingly down the slippery snake of life - but how did they now throw the six that would set them climbing the ladders again?

There was no way she could say this to a stranger, however. There was no way in which she could say it to anyone any more. They had chosen to be alone, and alone was exactly what they were.

'That was brave of you,' Judy was saying.

'Brave, or stupid?' asked Chel, but under her breath, so that Judy said,

'Sorry?'

'Nothing.' Nothing?

They had almost reached the motor caravan now, and Oliver, who was sitting in the early spring sunshine in his wheelchair, reading the paper. The wheelchair was an improvement, back "home" in Embridge he had flatly refused to have anything to do with it, here in Cornwall it had turned out to be useful, and Chel was glad that she had insisted on bringing the hated object with them. It was, for one thing, the only seat they had in which he could sit outside comfortably. He still refused to let her push him around in it, but she could forgive that. In any case, he was getting quite handy on crutches these days so it mattered far less than it had done.

She called out,

'Oliver! See what I've found, a relative of yours!'

Oliver jumped, and crumpled the paper in... alarm? Chel wasn't sure. Perhaps that had been a bit tactless, Oliver and his known relatives were in a permanent state of war.

'God, Chel, don't give me shocks like that! I thought you were about to present me with Susan!' He looked at Judy with wary interest, which Judy returned but without the wariness.

'Hi, I'm Judy,' she said. 'We think that your grandfather was my grandfather's brother. I think that makes us second cousins, but I'm never sure.'

Oliver looked as if once removed, and preferably to somewhere a long way away from here, would suit him better, but good manners made him take Judy's friendly, extended hand.

'Well, hullo,' he said.

'It's Judy's parents down at the farm,' said Chel, helpfully.

Oliver had already suspected that the Jacksons might be relatives, from something said on a previous visit to Trelewan, and had deliberately said nothing. He might have known, though, that he couldn't get away with it for ever, and Judy looked pleasant enough. It occurred to him that Chel might be happier with a friend to do things with; although she had denied it, she must find time hanging heavy on her hands, he knew that he certainly did. So he made himself smile, and Judy's impression of him, as a thin, dark, scowling man, changed in a moment. Like Chel's, the smile lit his face and charmed her. Perhaps they neither of them had that much to smile about and were simply out of practice?

'My - our, that is - great uncle William, who is still alive by the way, although knocking on a bit these days, has always told us that his older brother Simon ran away to enlist when he was sixteen years old, but if he's right, he obviously survived.' Oliver made no comment, so Judy continued. 'My grandfather, who is dead now, wasn't born until after 1915, when it all happened, this great family row about yours not wanting to be a farmer - so he never knew him... well, you know what families are. Go back far enough, and you lose your way completely. But that's roughly how it goes. From our side, anyway.' She paused, and Oliver said,

'My grandfather was a solicitor, and a very fly operator if reputation doesn't lie. I don't remember him, he died quite soon after I was born.'

'Fortunes of war,' said Judy, speculating on possibilities. 'It threw all sorts of people together - maybe he was a bit of an opportunist even that far back, and someone gave him a chance after it was all over. I don't suppose we shall ever know now.'

Oliver gave the first indication for weeks that he ever intended to speak to his family again.

'My father may be able to fill in the blanks, if it interests you. You could ask him. But sweeping things under the carpet is a bit of a tradition on our branch of the family tree, and he may not even know.'

Chel took Judy's bag of shopping and prepared to step up into the van.

'I'm going to put the kettle on. Would you like a cup of tea, Judy?'

Judy suddenly remembered the kettle simmering on the Aga in the farm kitchen. Her mother would think she'd been kidnapped.

'I'd better not. Ma's expecting me.' She put the box of eggs and the letter into Chel's outstretched hand. 'I tell you what, though. I'll take a rain check - Keith and I will maybe drop by one evening and get acquainted properly... if that's all right, of course?'

Chel looked at Oliver, leaving him to reply, not wishing to be blamed afterwards if she said the wrong thing. He hesitated, and she held her breath. If he agreed, it would be a big step forward.

'Why not?' said Oliver.

'We'll call it a date then,' said Judy. 'I'll get Dad to drop that key up, Chel. See you both!'

She was gone, running down the field. Oliver raised his eyebrows at Chel, looking guilty in the doorway.

'Key? What have you two been hatching?'

'She suggested we might rent one of the big vans, just for a few weeks,' said Chel. Her expression was so hangdog that Oliver gave a smothered laugh. Chel relaxed. 'It would give us some space,' she said. Oliver held out his hand to her.

'Come here.'

Half-reluctantly, she stepped down to the ground again and came to him. He took her hand, looking up at her.

'Am I so frightening, Chel? Do I bully you? You looked terrified just now.'

'No, of course you don't.' She knew that she spoke too loudly.

'Convince me,' said Oliver.

She sat down on the step, without removing her hand from his.

'It's not you,' she said.

'What is it then?'

Chel bit her lip. His voice was gentle, but she knew, after this past, terrible year, how volatile he could be. She was very afraid of saying the wrong thing.

'Everything...,' she said.

'That's comprehensive! Can you be more specific?'

Chel said, in a rush,

'I can't seem to get past now. Where we are, what we're doing. I'm sure it was the right thing to come here, but what's the next step? I don't know.'

They sat silent for a minute or two, touching but not speaking.

'It's all a bit of a muddle, isn't it?' said Oliver, at last. Chel nodded, without speaking. A sudden, shaking anger came over her, familiar and helpless, against the seven young hooligans whose mindless violence had brought them to this place, who had been, in a phrase someone had actually used at the time, having fun. And somewhere in the world, she was well aware, were people who would try to excuse them on the grounds of deprivation, broken homes, unemployment, media influence, and plead for mercy and understanding for them, for that very humanity which they had so signally lacked. But Oliver, too, came from a broken home. He was now not simply unemployed, but for the moment at least, unemployable. Probably none of that vast army of do-gooders would think that worth mentioning, after all, he was only the victim, the cause some said, and his father had money. The sheer injustice of it all nearly choked her, ten times a day, and she found it impossible to let it go. Knowing that if she didn't, it was simply conceding violence another point, wasn't enough. Until she - they, indeed, for Oliver must surely feel it even more - could resolve it, there was no open road ahead.

'One step at a time,' said Oliver, quietly. He was becoming expert at that, and in more ways than one.

'What step?' asked Chel, in a strangled voice she only barely recognised as her own, because if there had been a step to take it might have been easier to let resentment go.

Oliver gestured down the field.

'Burn another boat. Move into one of those big vans, sell this one, buy a car, make ourselves more mobile. We've got to do it eventually, why not now?'

'But it'd only be for weeks, at the most.'

'Something's got to give, sometime. It may not be much of an opening, but it's something.'

Chel said, fearful,

'We shouldn't jump into selling this van, surely. We might need it again.'

'If we're going to take a gamble, let's make it a good one.'

That sounded so like the Oliver she had married that Chel stared at him in amazement. He gave her a wry smile.

'It's only my legs that have turned stupid on me. My brain still works.'

It occurred to Chel, and for the first time, that Oliver's reluctance to commit to anything was because he had seen nothing to commit to, and perhaps he had been thinking the same about her. If that was so, Judy's offered key to the caravan might prove to be the key to a great deal else. Not a future yet, but a recognisable path down which they might stumble to a place where the viewpoint would be different. As Oliver had said, one step at a time.

'If we do that,' she said, tentatively, because she wasn't yet sure how wide was the opening ahead of them, 'perhaps we ought to let everyone know where we are. Don't you think?'

'Why?' asked Oliver. 'They know we're alive. You ring them on that mobile you insisted on bringing.'

Chel sighed. Oliver sounded less argumentative than she had expected, but it was difficult to preach a gospel in which she didn't wholly believe.

'Because they're worrying. Why else?'

'Your family may be,' conceded Oliver.

'And yours,' said Chel, who was invariably the one who spoke to them.

'Mine?' he asked, derisively. 'Mine are only bothered with how it looks to other people, you know that.'

Chel would have liked to retreat from the tone of his voice, but instinct told her that to let Oliver create a precedent of that kind would be a retrograde step just when things were beginning to show a glimmer of promise. After a short hesitation, she continued, feeling her way and nervous of his reactions, stupidly afraid of precipitating a row and despising herself for it. She hadn't exactly meant to start this particular hare, but having done so, realised that it would give her a chance to say several things that had needed saying for some time. At least one of them weighed very heavily on her conscience. So she took hold of her courage, and went on.

'Not your father,' she said. 'He'd go to the stake rather than tell you, because that's the way he is, but he's so proud of you and the things you've done, he gets all gruff and embarrassed just talking about you.'

He doesn't get all gruff and embarrassed talking to me,' Oliver told her.

'Because he doesn't know how to handle you, and never has done,' said Chel. 'In his own way, he's always tried to do his best for you, and Helen - '

'You hardly know Helen,' cut in Oliver, swiftly. 'Leave her out of it.'

Chel knew that Oliver's mother was the whole point. She almost backed down and let the moment slip, but there might never be another, and hadn't she already decided not to let Oliver intimidate her?

'It's true I hardly know her,' she said. 'But you can't leave her out. Listen, Oliver - '

'No, you listen! She went away to lead her own life, and left me to be brought up as a duty by a righteous, spiteful bore! I don't suppose you've ever been a duty. It's not much fun.'

'She couldn't both take you and leave you, however much she loved you,' retorted Chel, immediately defensive of Helen, whom she deeply pitied. 'She had to make a decision that would be best for you, not her! So, she got talked into the wrong one, just like I did over the bungalow, and you too - '

'And by the same people,' said Oliver, as if that clinched the argument.

'So you should understand,' said Chel.

Oliver said nothing to that, and after a moment, Chel went on,

'Think about it. And while you're doing it, think about this too. You think Helen doesn't love you. You think she ran out on you and only cared about her work. Well, she's an artist, and perhaps in one way she did - but only in one way. She loves you and cares what happens to you so little, Oliver Nankervis, that last year when you were so ill, and it looked as if you might be on a dialysis machine for the rest of your life, she was prepared to give you one of her kidneys. So talk your way out of that!'

In the silence, she heard the birds singing in the hedge and the faint rumble of a tractor in a distant field, cars on the road through the village. After what seemed a lifetime, Oliver said,

'I didn't know that. Nobody told me.'

'I know you didn't know it, that's why I have told you. Helen just said it didn't matter, once you were safe, and she went back to America, but only because you so obviously didn't want her around. But don't ever say to me again that she puts her work first!'

There seemed nothing more to be said that wouldn't lead to the quarrel she dreaded, and so she flounced back into the van to unpack the shopping. Since Oliver subsequently behaved as if the whole conversation had never taken place, she was left miserably aware that he might feel much as she did. They had a long, long way to go yet before life was anything even approaching normal again.

'What was the letter?' asked Oliver, now, and Chel handed it down to him without speaking. Knowing quite well that he had upset her, he took it, also unspeaking. Chel's family life, he well knew, had been nothing like his own and although he was glad for her, he didn't see, had never seen, that it gave her the right to sit in judgement on him. What Helen might choose to do now made no difference to what she had done before, although, if he was honest, Chel had succeeded in startling him. But Chel had no idea what she was talking about, and that was all there was to it. It wasn't open to argument, it was quite simply graven in stone. He opened the letter, drawing out the sheaf of papers inside and riffling through them.

'Two bungalows on a new estate, no thanks, a terraced cottage in St. Just, where they already know we don't want to live, and Trelewan House which is presently a guest house and has seven bedrooms and self-contained attic accommodation for the owners.'

'Nothing to rent?' asked Chel, making an effort to sound normal.

'I think we might be asking in the wrong places for that,' said Oliver, pushing the papers back into the envelope. 'Apart from our flat, I've never rented - and that came by word of mouth.'

'Perhaps we could ask around the village,' suggested Chel, for talking to Judy had brought the village into focus, whereas before it seemed somewhere blurred in the background that was convenient only to buy food. She realised that she had allowed herself to develop a kind of tunnel vision over the last few weeks, directing all her energies onto Oliver and disregarding anything else. Perhaps that had been necessary at first. Listlessly, she piled packets and tins onto the tiny worktop and thought about it. It seemed ironic that they might have run away to learn to live again, and in the process, forgotten how to do it.

The evening was beginning to draw on, and the van felt chilly. She looked through the door at Oliver, who, impervious to the chill, had returned to his newspaper, although she didn't think he was reading it.

'Aren't you cold?' she asked, and was sorry to hear that it came out like a challenge. The word catalyst came into her mind. Judy had been a catalyst, bringing the outside world into their quiet little cocoon of healing and peace. Oliver lowered his newspaper.

'You can't want to shut yourself up in a box this early, surely,' he said.

Chel looked at him, feeling her mouth primming into a disapproving line, and just for a moment, a real row hovered in the wings. Then her sense of humour came to her rescue and she found herself, unexpectedly, laughing.

'You are a selfish bastard, Oliver Nankervis!' she exclaimed. 'For someone who's spent so many years living in a tiny space on a yacht, anyone would think you suffered from claustrophobia!'

To her relief, Oliver grinned back at her. He folded the newspaper and started to pull himself out of the chair, while at the same time, apparently giving serious thought to her accusation.

'Do you know, I think you might be right,' he said. He was upright now, steadying himself with one hand against the side of the van, breathing a little fast.

'Not a permanent condition, I hope,' said Chel. Seeing Oliver fight his disability always hurt her, but she knew better, by this time, than to offer help. She kept her voice light. 'I'll turn into an ice maiden!'

'I do, too,' said Oliver. 'But no - I think it's just the effect of spending so long cooped up in hospital.' He didn't mention the bungalow, and neither did Chel. She stood aside from the doorway. There were only two shallow steps to climb, but even so he found it a struggle, and she hated to watch. Two years, they had told them at the hospital. Two years before healing was complete, but one of them was already gone and it didn't seem to Chel that he found it any easier to pick up his feet than he had at the start. Wherever they lived, it couldn't have stairs for him to climb. Laughter gone as quickly as it had come, she began to shove the tins anyhow into the cupboard, the butter and cheese into their tiny fridge.

It was about an hour later that Jeff Jackson knocked on the door. He carried with him a fragrant, newspaper-wrapped package and a key on a tag labelled No.10.

'Little present from the wife,' he said. 'She says you're family.' He grinned at Chel, as she stood above him in the doorway. 'Gives you special privileges that does. And here's the key. Have a look when you want, and bring the key down the farm, tell us what you think. We can have it cleaned tomorrow, you could move in when you like. It's this end one, so you won't be bothered.'

'For how long?' asked Chel. Jeff wrinkled up his nose, thinking.

'Four, five weeks, I reckon. Can't do no more, we've bookings. But it might tide you over.' He looked at the motor caravan disparagingly. 'Like sardines in a tin you are, in here. All right for a holiday.'

Chel thanked him, took the package and the key from him and watched him stumping back down the field in the ebbing daylight. She stood there for several minutes.

'Taken root, have you?' asked Oliver, adding, 'Something smells good. What's in the parcel?'

Chel laid it on the worktop and carefully unwrapped two pasties.

'That'll save me cooking tonight,' she observed. 'How kind of her, they look wonderful!' She looked at Oliver, twirling the key on its ring around her finger. 'Shall we have a look? It's not dark yet.'

'Why not? The exercise will do me good.'

Chel had meant to drive down the field, but Oliver was already struggling to his feet, reaching for the crutches on which he was becoming an expert these days. She realised that they had just taken another big step forward, and wondered for a wild moment if their lives were doomed to be always so contradictory. They had fled from Embridge to escape relatives, landed up by chance among different relatives, and apparently fallen through a hole in the clouds into a whole new country. A visit from the Archangel Gabriel could have hardly had more immediate impact than Judy's brief visit. Absurdly, she felt tears choking at the back of her throat, and jumped down off the step onto the ground so that Oliver shouldn't guess. Taking deep breaths of the cool evening air, she got herself under control and when he finally stood beside her, she turned to him an untroubled face.

'Come on then,' said Oliver.

They walked slowly down the field at Oliver's pace, which at present couldn't be described as fast. Hedges and trees cast long shadows, the sun hung low in the sky, a red ball in a puff of pink and orange clouds that lay close to the horizon.. There would be a frost tonight, Chel thought, sniffing the air. A beautiful day tomorrow, with luck. It would be nice to think that it would herald many beautiful days to come, in which the good things would come flooding back to them, but she knew that life seldom worked that way. They had had their golden time, two incredible years of it, nobody got that twice. Living for the moment, doing exactly as they pleased... well, they had always known, hadn't they, that that couldn't go on for ever?

It had turned into a dead end, leading nowhere. The knowledge lay at the bottom of Chel's heart like lees in a bottle of wine.

The caravan was dark inside, but when Chel touched the switch just inside the door, the lights came on. It smelled disused, but not damp. Damp would have been impossible for Oliver. She stepped into a dining area, with stove, sink and worktop under the window to the left of the door, a family-sized fridge, and a door beyond leading into a sitting area with proper chairs and a sofa that probably, she thought, made a double bed. Turning back to explore the other end, she came face to face with Oliver, breathing hard from the effort of negotiating the step.

'Bedrooms,' he said, in answer to her unspoken question. 'One double, one tiny one with bunks, we could even have visitors.' He was smiling. 'I've been in plenty of smaller boats than this. And at least we could get away from each other. Stop getting on each other's nerves so much.'

So he realised that, too. The afternoon had been full of surprises, one way or the other.

'Go for it, then?' asked Chel.

'To hell with it! Why not?'

They had moved together almost without realising it. Oliver leaned one crutch carefully against the kitchen units and put the arm thus freed around Chel. She leaned her head into his shoulder. She felt safe, but whether it was Oliver or the van, she wasn't sure.

'Home, sweet home,' she said.

Oliver bent his head to kiss her, lightly, on the temple. She turned her head, and their lips met. There was more of the love that had once been between them in that kiss than there had been for a long time.

'Right then,' said Chel. 'Decision taken. So let's go get at those pasties.'

 

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ISBN 1-84294 154-2

 

 
 

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